IF anyone ever doubts the potential strike power of Championship clubs against Super League opponents in the forthcoming Qualifiers, Hull KR head coach James Webster can, unfortunately, set them straight.
The Australian takes his top-flight side into the Middle Eights this weekend when they start with a home game against part-timers Batley Bulldogs.
Rovers, with their greater experience and spending power will, of course, be expected to prosper against John Kear’s semi-professional outfit.
However, that was the same when Oldham, newly-promoted from League One, ventured to the KC Lightstream Stadium in mid-April and pulled off a major Challenge Cup shock by defeating the stunned Robins 36-22.
It was Webster’s lowest point in the sport while disgusted chairman Neil Hudgell labelled his expensively-assembled squad “mentally soft”.
Having narrowly missed out on the top eight, they face Championship opponents again in the Qualifiers when the clear threat of relegation looms large for all four Super League sides.
“Obviously, we’d still like to be in the Cup, but if you look at it now, what happened that day against Oldham was good preparation for us,” said Webster.
“We understand we need to be at our best against those sorts of sides.
“I think some of our boys had not really experienced playing against Championship sides before and it was a good taste for them; it showed them what can happen if you don’t turn up at 100 per cent.
“While there was a lot of pain around that for a time, it’s prepared us well for this competition coming up now.”
In the weeks ahead, the East Yorkshire club must travel to London Broncos and part-timers Featherstone Rovers, while Leigh, the big-spending Championship League Leaders’ Shield winners, will visit east Hull.
Hull KR also, of course, play Super League rivals Leeds Rhinos, Huddersfield Giants and Salford Red Devils along the way as they strive for the points to secure a top-three place and avoid the lottery of the ‘Million-Pound Game’.
Webster, who captained the Robins to promotion from the second tier in 2006, has the utmost respect for Batley, who have surprised so many with their exploits this term.
Indeed, he feels the gap between full-time and part-time sides is not as great as many believe – and the likes of Batley have, bizarrely, prospered due to Championship rivals Sheffield Eagles’ decision to go fully professional in 2016.
“I’ve been there, played there and always enjoyed it at Batley,” explained the 37-year-old, who took over until the end of the season when Chris Chester was sacked just three games into this campaign.
“It’s a great little ground, run by people that are the heart and soul of what rugby league is all about.
“They’ve done a really good job there now over a number of years and fully deserve this; they played 23 rounds and got 31 points.
“There is a real niche, I think, for Batley and Featherstone as not everyone (at Sheffield) wanted to go full-time. A lot of good players went to Batley or Fev as they had good jobs and plenty left (Sheffield) as they wanted to carry on working.
“If you look at Fev, too, they’ve got people like Anthony Thackeray and Steve Snitch – those types who have plenty of Super League experience. They’re hardened. Batley and Fev are really strong sides; they have a part-time tag, but there’s not a huge amount of training time difference.
“It’s just when they do it; they have to train after a day’s work.
“Physically, I don’t expect there to be too much difference.
“We’ve already been shown by Oldham that physically there isn’t and Batley are a big, strong side.”
Webster was present at Featherstone in the final game of the regular season as they defeated full-time Bradford 20-0 to secure the fourth and final Qualifiers spot for Championship sides.
Former Halifax, Hull and Dewsbury scrum-half Thackeray was to the fore that afternoon – a case in point for Webster’s argument – and he said: “I know Thacks well as I played with him at Widnes.
“He was probably the difference between the sides at Fev. I’d like to say I taught him all that when we were at Widnes.
“He’s been a really good player outside of Super League for a long period of time now.”
Rovers will be without prop James Green who has been ruled out for the rest of the 2016 season with a shoulder injury.
The Robins forward dislocated his AC joint in the home fixture against Leeds Rhinos last month.
Green underwent successful surgery on the injury yesterday and will now begin his rehabilitation programme with the club’s medical staff.
Head of rugby Jamie Peacock said: “This is disappointing news for the club and an unfortunate blow for James, who had just made his return to the side from suspension and was looking forward to making a positive impact in the final seven rounds of the season.
“Aside from our long-term injuries, we have a reasonably healthy squad to select from.”